School of Music


Master of Arts in Ethnomusicology (MA)


Katherine H Morehouse


Afghanistan, Afghan Star, Identity, Modernity, Popular Music, Reality Television


Ethnomusicology | Music


In 2005 a televised singing competition took Afghanistan by storm. In a nation previously known for censorship of music and violations of women’s rights, a new precedent began to take shape. People of all ages and ethnic groups followed Afghan Star and cast their votes by mobile phone—a technology that had only recently become available. Though followed by a sea of controversy, Afghan Star has persisted for more than a decade and remains one of the most popular television programs in Afghanistan. Prior to the Taliban, Afghanistan already had a vibrant musical culture, but most people felt that playing music was not an acceptable activity for someone from an honorable family. Such perceptions persist even today, but Afghan Star has begun the process of normalizing musicianship in society. This thesis explores the ways in which Afghan Star models national identity in the twenty-first century and seeks to assess its impact on Afghan culture. The study relies on data from the show itself, a quantitative survey of Afghan viewers, and ethnographic interviews with Afghan musicians. Western media coverage has focused on the role of the show in promoting democracy and women’s rights, but this study shows that the significance of Afghan Star goes beyond these issues. Afghan Star has precedent in history, a strong voice in promoting national unity, and a vision for social change. Afghan Star is a place where people of different ethnicities compete as equals, where ancient and modern genres of music comfortably coexist, and where young people feel free to develop their talents. As such, it models a vision of what Afghanistan could be in the future.